How Closely are Education and Life Expectancy Linked?

For most Americans, life expectancy is steadily increasing, yet a new study finds that educational attainment is linked to startling decreases among some groups. The study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society and published in the August issue of Health Affairs examines the factors of education, race, and sex in [...]

For most Americans, life expectancy is steadily increasing, yet a new study finds that educational attainment is linked to startling decreases among some groups. The study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society and published in the August issue of Health Affairs examines the factors of education, race, and sex in connection with longevity between 1990 and 2008.

Since 1990, the gap in life expectancy between the least and most educated Americans has widened from two years to an alarming 10 years, according to S. Jay Olshansky, the study’s lead author and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Those with 12 years of education or less comprise the group commonly identified by researchers as the least educated. However, a closer look at this group – dividing it into those with high school diplomas and those without – revealed that non-Hispanic white women without high school diplomas have taken a deeper dive in life expectancy than any other group. This group has lost five years of longevity since 1990 as compared to three in their male counterparts. Blacks and Hispanics of the same educational attainment demonstrated small gains.

These decreases brought the life expectancy of the lowest educated down to levels seen in the 1950s and 1960s.

“ ‘We’re used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven’t improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling,’ said John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, who was not involved in the new study.”

The link between longevity and education in black males is equally disturbing.

“The benefit of education for African American males stops at 12 years,” said James S. Jackson, a member of the research team, and professor of Psychology, Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan.

About 40 percent of the least-educated African American males who make it to age 25 will die before they are 65, the study found, as will 22 percent of the most-educated. For all other groups, the chances of dying by age 65 are only 10 percent.”

There are many factors at play in addition to education, particularly among the groups with the lowest life expectancy. Some of these include obesity, an increase in smoking and drug use since 1990, violence, and limited access to healthcare. None of these alone can account for the study’s findings, still some conclusions are clear:

“Implement educational enhancements at young, middle, and older ages for people of all races, to reduce the large gap in health and longevity that persists today.”

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